City sets out to coordinate neighborhood watch groups

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A new city program to coordinate volunteer neighborhood watches was announced yesterday by Mayor Martin O'Malley and police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark as at least 100 people gathered by the "Believemobile" stage on a Park Heights street corner.

O'Malley told the crowd that Baltimore's crime figures - which rank the city as the second most dangerous in America - remain "unacceptable." But he said that he has hope that good neighborhood programs will turn the numbers around.

"We need to reach out, refine and take our neighborhood watches to the next level," he said. "We are going to activate good people and have to customize our strategy."

The newly established Operation Crime Watch will be based at City Hall and will employ two people full time whose aim will be to help Baltimore's neighborhood networks work more strategically and systematically with city police. They will also try to create volunteer watches in areas where they are most needed, city officials said.

Kevin Cleary, director of the new office, said the federally funded program will run for three years on a budget of $140,000 a year and will be similar to a Town Watch model some Baltimore officials had observed in Philadelphia. That program, for example, has made it widely known that a call to 911 can be made anonymously, to ensure that a police car does not show up at a caller's house, he said.

"We will increase the number of eyes and ears and encourage training so people can become block watchers," Cleary said.

City neighborhood watches are currently carried out on an ad hoc basis, with no central administration to coordinate them, keep records, analyze patterns or compare methods to determine which are most effective, city officials said.

About 20 or 25 neighborhoods have been singled out as top-priority areas, Cleary said. They include Reservoir Hill, Pigtown, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, Sandtown-Winchester, Patterson Park and Belair-Edison. But the program is intended to be inclusive and will act as host to a citywide conference of crime watchers - from community and police ranks - this fall.

One Park Heights activist, Novella Gaskins, 52, was on hand yesterday to cheer on the effort. She said she recruited other members of the Greater Park Heights Citizens on Patrol last summer and hopes a partnership with police will aid the neighborhood groups.

"We have [abandoned] vehicles, trash," Gaskins said. But, she said, she is confident the neighborhood will eventually rid itself of them.

Terry Smith, public safety advocate of the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood planning council, said he was convinced the change he noticed in Philadelphia could happen here.

Police Lt. Col. Otis L. Sistrunk Jr., who observed the Philadelphia program and brought news of it to Baltimore, said collaboration is the essence of the program. Block captains will be appointed in each neighborhood and watch groups will be trained by police officers, he said.

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